Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Common Core standing tall onstage at the Folger

2013 Secondary School Festival. Folger Shakespeare Library.
2013 Secondary School Festival. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Let’s make a date for another day to have a longer, more nuanced conversation about the many parts of the Common Core.

For now, I just want to say that if we could put politics aside and testing aside (and unfortunately, in our beloved field of education, we can put aside neither for long), the expectations for student mastery laid out in the Common Core are the same kinds of expectations that good teachers have had for their students for centuries. Centuries.

And what gets me going on about the Common Core at the moment is that our theatre is crammed this week and next with middle and high school students performing Shakespeare at the Secondary School Shakespeare Festival.

In their schools, they have been learning Shakespeare by getting up and doing it… and then they come to the Folger Theatre.

Eight schools are here each day; they each perform their 25-minute scene and are audience to the other schools. They comment on one another’s work.

The Mistress of the Revels orchestrates language games in between scenes, and during this year’s Festival, each day is ending with all 250 students, teachers, and parent-chaperones collaborating to produce a 20-minute version of Richard III. 

The solid gold under all of this high energy is that these students really know these plays, this language, these characters because they have been learning all of this from the inside out.

Get Shakespeare’s language into the mouths of students of any age, let them get a chance to feel it**, and what starts to happen? Students begin to make their own way through complex texts. How? Through intense close reading, serious analysis, disciplined collaborative work.

If you had seen the Cassius I saw a bit earlier today (thank you, Dakota Rosell from Walkersville High School, Walkersville, MD), you would have said what I did: That guy is Cassius.  Or that excellent, clearly motivated Theseus (thank you, Tatiana Chavez, Duke Ellington School, Washington, DC).

The deeper students go, the better they get at it. They’re learning Shakespeare by getting up and “doing” Shakespeare–in English class, in the hallways, in the gym, in a drama class, in an after-school drama club.

Will some of them go on to be actors?  Some. Mostly they will end up in other careers, and in lives where they hopefully will be unafraid to dive into a bit of compelling literature from time to time.

You can call that a good life, or you can call that knowing your way around a complex text.

Secondary School Shakespeare Festival. Folger Shakespeare Library, 2011 © duytranphotography.com
Secondary School Shakespeare Festival.
Folger Shakespeare Library, 2011 © duytranphotography.com

**To give students a chance to feel the language, try this:

  • Get out on an athletic field or in the gym or distribute ear plugs to your colleagues on either side.
  • Divide your class in half, and have them face each other in two groups.
  • One half should shout this line VERY LOUD at the other half:  You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!
  • The other half should respond VERY LOUDLY as well:  We are such stuff as dreams are made on!
  • Repeat.  Switch lines.
  • Bonus:  If you want to teach iambic pentameter, You blocks . . .  is a perfect line to start with!
Secondary School Shakespeare Festival, Folger Shakespeare Library, 2011 © duytranphotography.com
Secondary School Shakespeare Festival.
Folger Shakespeare Library, 2011 © duytranphotography.com

Peggy O’Brien is the Director of Education at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Follow her on Twitter at @obrienfolger or send her an email at pobrien@folger.edu.